Ghosts, weddings and hit-and-runs are all just small threads that wrestling has used throughout the WWE's legacy to drive storylines. But for the non-wrestling fans who prefer their action in the vein of Celebrity Deathmatch, there exists a small but fervent community of wrestling modders, crafting some of the most exotic and extravagant cards in the business while working hard to stay afloat.
Known as CAW, or Create-A-Wrestler, Leagues, fans host a variety of events throughout the year, pitting custom wrestlers against each other in royal rumbles, ladder matches and title card fights. The extent to which these custom characters can go is limited only by imagination, and the limits of the modding tools available. Michael Myers of Halloween fame is a favourite, and some matches feature greats like John Cena or Triple H against Superman or Mr. Clean.
My own introduction to this sort of wrestling content was through cut-and-directed events like the Undertale wrestling feature, a 40-minute production with storylines, score and an actual plot that ties every match and promo together.
Plenty of these exist, but beyond the one-off specials and viral YouTube videos, you find the CAW Leagues. NoDQ CAW was heralded as one of the first leagues, and ran from 2004 to 2007. Starting with a few videos depicting horror movie stars wrestling, it spawned a legion of imitators and leagues attempting to push the envelope further.
The most well-known today is the VGCW, or Video Game Championship Wrestling. Starting in 2012, using the wrestling game WWE 2K13, a person under the guise Bazza McMahon started broadcasting live shows using a capture card, filled with video game and pop-culture characters like Zangief, former SEGA mascot Segata Sanshiro and Dragonball Z character Mr. Satan.
The diversity of the cast alone is impressive. Just to illustrate, here is a GIF of Professor Layton, a humble puzzle-solving man, giving a fierce chop to the dome of indie darling Shovel Knight.
What started as a few one-off promotional matches became seasons, which thrived thanks to a culture it built up around itself. Jokes about "THQuality" would flood the chat whenever bugs occurred, and word of new streams would spread across forums and message boards. The advent of live-streaming was a huge boon to the VGCW, as from the beginning, fans began to discuss, cheer and in some cases even steer plot threads for the league's fictional pantheon.
In season one, a Money In The Bank ladder match spurred controversy among the viewership. When the match started, the AI for the other combatants in the arena focused on each other, leaving Zangief as the sole wrestler fixated on the briefcase at the top of the ladder. He walked over, climbed up and grabbed it immediately, ending the match. Bazza didn't think this was good television, so he declared a rematch, and Little Mac of Punch-Out fame was left victorious.
Gief faces down the authority. Rather than just clap and go along with it, fans dubbed it the "Soviet Screwjob," saying Bazza was out to champion Little Mac, speculating if Mac was in McMahon's pocket. Bazza pushed this further, using the Create-A-Story feature in WWE 2K13 to develop the feud between the wronged Zangief and the company favourite Mac using cutscenes and interstitial promos.
Zangief complained about being "screwed" in a promo, followed by a surprise backstage brawl between him and Mac that left the former beaten. A grudge match was held between the two, but an avatar of Bazza played ref, and a few dirty moves from Little Mac secured him a win. In a series of escalating events, Zangief joined forces with Legend of Zelda villain Ganondorf to form Gerudo Skies, a tag-team that would face Bazza McMahon and Little Mac in the ring for a match where the corporate forces would finally be overthrown.
In a climactic bout between Zangief and Little Mac, in a 30-Minute Inferno Iron Man Match, Little Mac emerged victorious. Bazza's avatar rushed the ring with a chair, telling Mac to teach Zangief a permanent lesson; Mac refused and threw the chair back, and the two settled their feud. (Little Mac was later seen in the parking lot, being hit by a mysterious black car.)
Seriously, this actually happened. While the initial spectacle draws you in, the storylines that these creators craft around both chat response and their own ideas fills wikis, and they still broadcast semi-regularly to this day. Currently running the broadcast is Brian Ballard, who alongside a team of creatives, develops new programs and series to flesh out the league. The aforementioned diversity of characters has to be balanced out by fan favourites, and the console version only allowed so many characters. Developmental leagues soon sprang up, ran by community members to build personalities and faces for primetime.
Though the scale has increased, many things remain the same. Even the game is still a dated WWE 2k14, as according to Ballard, newer titles haven't offered the same tools for crafting cutscenes or provided the variety of events that his team likes to cover. As for the storylines, they're still going strong.
"Back when Bazza ran things, there were a lot of weird ideas, plenty of which were a little too out there for Bazza," Ballard told us. "He would run with some of them, but usually the big season-long stuff came from his own ideas. I've been trying to carry on similarly."
Ballard has hosted a litany of new programs since he took over from Bazza in June 2015, and in the years since that fateful match between Zangief and Little Mac, VGCW has reached greater and greater heights. Promoted by Twitch and featured in a poster in Octodad: Dadliest Catch, VGCW has spread into multiple divisions and even a reality show, where popular characters live in a house in The Sims 3.
Despite all that, VGCW's future looks a little tenuous. The community has dealt with two server shutdowns, and with the most recent one, a month's notice was all the league had prior to the shutdown of WWE 2k14's servers. Ballard and his team had to download as many characters as they could, and are essentially operating with a fixed roster.
"We can still use the in-game character creator, but we can't get new characters from our community anymore," said Ballard. "And our community's been very talented at making characters, they have done some seriously impressive work. From the intricate details on Ganondorf to the freakish monsters like Ridley, people have made all sorts of characters with this, probably well beyond what the 2K14 devs must have thought was possible."
VGCW may soon be without a showrunner as well. Ballard is planning to step down at the conclusion of the 13th season finale, End Game X3, taking place on May 9. "I haven't picked a successor, but someone else might step up and try to run VGCW going forward," said Ballard. "Or maybe the concept spreads to a new show with the same spirit."
Either way, this scene has thrived on the grassroots energy of a modding scene and the spirit of many amateur wrestling leagues before it. For those who don't get excited about whoever Roman Reigns is grappling with this year (a population growing every minute), VGCW and the plethora of CAW leagues provide a fun escape.
"No matter what happens," said Ballard. "We've got nearly five years of a video game wrestling show that's gone on far longer than anyone would have expected."